The Genius Of He-Man’s Mini Comics Illustrates The Importance Of Thinking On Your Feet

When He-Man action figures appeared in toy aisles across America in the 1980s, they were unlike anything any child had seen before. And the revenue figures proved it: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys generated $38.2 million in 1982 and grew to a peak of $400 million in 1986.

One of the innovative aspects of this toy franchise was the inclusion of a bonus mini comic which told a story relevant to the figure it came with. These comics helped flesh out the characters and the overall storyline with the intention of selling more product. But the secret origin of these comics — these comics which have inspired website archives, reviews, and hardcover reprints — has a special lesson for product managers.

Star Wars Has a Movie. The Kids Know The Story And Buy The Toys. What Do You Guys Have?

In episode three of the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, former VP of Boys Toys at Mattel, Mark Ellis, reveals the origin of the He-Man mini comics.

Prior to launching the toy line, Ellis and his team present the concept to retailers for their feedback and endorsement. The brand overview shows off He-Man, his skull-faced nemesis Skeletor, and other key characters. The presentation seems to be going well.

Then, a sales representative from a key retailer observes that the Star Wars toys are very popular because children know the characters from the movie and then buy the characters they love from the movie.

The skeptical rep asked the He-Man team point blank, “What do you guys have?”

At that early stage, there is no He-Man animated series to support the toy line.

There’s nothing.

After a moment of silence, Ellis responds, “Didn’t we tell you? We’re going to have a free comic book series inside each package so the kids will know about He-Man from the comics.”

The buyers accept the answer and the day is saved.

After the meeting, when the Mattel team asks Ellis when he had thought of the comics idea, he admits, “Right now.”

Invention Is Part Of The Job

As product managers, we’re taught to look hard at problems and really dig into them. But, the reality is, PMs find themselves solving problems of all sort every day.

Sometimes you can draw on previous experiences or training. Oftentimes, you’re making it up as you go along based on whatever data you have on hand.

Every day, you’re inventing something. The faster your can generate, collate, and evaluate ideas to get at a solution, the more successful you’re going to be.

How do you do that?

Mental Models

Aero Wong at 100PM outlines three mental models for product managers, which can help you think more swiftly on your feet.

I’ll summarize and comment on the three models using Skeletor as our object lesson, and add a mental model of my own.

Mental Model Summary Comments & Questions
The Higher Reality Product management intersects with business, technology and user experience. To succeed, the PM must be experienced in at least one, passionate about all three, and conversant with all. Skeletor operates in the intersection of magic, ambition, and being an Evil Lord of Destruction. He won’t rest until he possesses the secrets of Castle Grayskull, which would make him Master of the Universe, and is always relaying this vision to his minions and even to his enemies.

As a PM, how much time do you spend completing tasks versus elevating your understanding of the bigger picture? Are you effective at sharing the big picture with your counterparts in business, UX, and engineering? Do they understand your vision? How do you know?

The Zoom Out Perspective This model expands beyond the internal view and focuses on the PM’s need to create value for your customers and for your business. Despite his many strengths, Skeletor always loses to He-Man. Why? Because, even though Skeletor is generally a big picture thinker, he always, always loses the forest for the trees… or loses to his intense pollen allergies.

Do you venture outside of the building to learn about your market? Do you interact with analysts? Observe customers in their natural environments to understand their goals, their tools, their concerns?

The New Skill Model This model focuses on the “soft skills” of Communication, Organization, Research, and Execution to summarize what PMs should focus their time on. Skeletor has big plans and seems like he’s always on the move. But, practically speaking, there appears to be very little method or process in his organization beyond Dream Big, Fail Spectacularly, Berate Your Minions.

Practically speaking, how do you spend your time? If you were to review your calendar for the last six months, and rate your activities by percentage of time spent, would you be happy with the percentages or want to make changes moving forward?

The Hordak Principle Skeletor was originally a minion himself, serving the evil Hordak. While Skeletor is forever scheming to conquer Eternia and capture Castle Grayskull, Hordak has enslaved a whole other world. Hordak knows how to succeed through others while Skeletor struggles. As a product manager, you’ll quickly get shown the door if you treat people like minions. So don’t do that.

However, as an influencer, how can you get the best out of the people you work with? How can you build trust? Create a shared vision? Encourage mutual respect and appreciation?

These things won’t necessarily help you think faster, but this approach will get you better ideas faster and gain a more consistent commitment from the team — elements which are crucial to success and performance.

New Around Here?

Subscribe to the Product Management Meets Pop Culture newsfeed to receive future updates. Follow me on Twitter to keep the discussion going!

Bonus Content

Enjoy the original introduction to the animated series He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe from 1983:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: